Indy’s Leading Changemakers: ELA Teacher Michael Smith On Cultural Competence, Student Pride, and Tragic Love Stories
Alumnus Michael Smith (Indy '16) shares on surprises and challenges of school culture and structures, the value of students owning their own growth, and the relevance of Shakespeare plays to modern-day high school life. #OneDayIndy
June 21, 2018
With two years of classroom teaching through his corps commitment, alum Michael Smith was selected by his school, Arlington High School, as a Top 10 finalist for Indianapolis Public Schools' 2019 Teacher of the Year. The secondary ELA teacher met us at a café a few minutes outside of Arlington and spoke passionately about the systems, spaces, and curricular choices that greatly shape students' learning and pride in their own growth.
Why teaching? Why TFA?
I’ve known I wanted to go into teaching since I was 12. I came from a very unstable home life and school is where I found stability. I had a lot of teachers help me through the tougher parts of my childhood. From about the time I hit puberty, I knew these were people I wanted to be like—I wanted to be that source of stability for someone.
As for TFA, for most of my college career, I hated the program. I thought it was expanding too quickly and not changing fast enough. But I also knew that if there were problems within TFA, I wanted to be a part of the solution.
After I joined the corps, l was surprised by how well organized everything was. The organization and staff shut down any notions of the white savior complex in my corps, and l was impressed by how they responded to training as far as diversity, equity, inclusion work goes. When there were problems within my corps experience, I volunteered as the squeaky wheel, and people listened.
Did anything surprise you about teaching?
Middle school surprised me. How a 6’3 eighth-grader can act just like a third-grader. How much the students have to say—my kids always have something to say on every issue. l was also surprised by the limited amount of organization at the school level - I didn't think it was as messy as it was with structures and processes.
“I remember one girl who cussed me out in August, who later was so proud of her ﬁnal: all yellows and greens on her ﬁnal data card, which meant she mastered every standard. 'Look how well I did!' she said to me.”
You chose to teach Shakespeare in your classroom, which is a rather complex text for freshmen. How did students respond?
Decoding a difficult text is a skill you need in life to ﬁgure out what someone's trying to say through critical reading. My students fought me for every line and couplet until characters started dying, then they were interested. High school is full of tragic love stories, and students saw themselves in the text: the ﬁghts, premarital sex, dirty jokes. It's important to be exposed to these texts because if they’re in a professional setting if they're trying to navigate a white space, students need to have.
How would you describe school culture at Arlington?
School culture is growing. This past year was the third year since the school came back to IPS from a charter network. When Mr. Law (the principal) started in 2015, there was a rough job ahead of him. At the time, teachers lasted a month—students didn't feel valued, and were told horrible things about themselves and their communities. Now, students are proud when they’re nominated for Student of the Month and excited for things like Town Hall Meetings.
What have been your biggest successes and challenges in the last two years?
In terms of challenges, it was navigating the space and checking my own privileges. Coming into the corps, I had taken education courses that most other corps members didn’t, and I still struggled because the practice of teaching is how you learn to teach. I had to ﬁgure out what worked and how to respond to the kids actually in my classroom.
Once I ﬁgured out how to do that, the biggest success was helping kids see themselves grow—my kids taking ownership of their own growth. I remember one girl who cussed me out in August, who later was so proud of her ﬁnal: all yellows and greens on her ﬁnal data card, which meant she mastered every standard. 'Look how well I did!' she said to me. Seeing that, l was so proud of her. This was also the first year since we opened that ninth graders grew a full year in reading on SRI, which used to take much more than a year.
What advice do you have for ﬁrst—time teachers?
First, love the kids.
Second, breathe. Accept the things you can’t change and work to change the things you can. That’s what I would tell myself in October of my first year. I didn’t take enough time to take care of myself. I needed to stop trying to fix everything in my school. If there weren’t existing systems, I started trying to create them. But I really needed to prioritize focusing on my students. If you can't fix it, don’t worry that much about it.
“My students fought me for every line and couplet until characters started dying, then they were interested. High school is full of tragic love stories, and students saw themselves in the text.”
What does the future hold for you?
I want to keep teaching. For the past two years, Mr. Law has given me the space to grow as a teacher, and the autonomy to find what works for me. I want to follow my kids (to George Washington High School), be a part of starting a new school, and build a new culture from the ground up. I’m the lead teacher of our freshman academy this year and will be next year.
In addition, I also want to try other grades. I’m also looking into PhD programs, possibly a dual PhD in English and Education, which would mean teaching college-level courses for teachers and English undergrads. Continuing to teach is the best thing I can do because too often people go into teaching corps programs for 1-3 years to pad their resumes for law or policy fellowships, then transition out to pursue corporate law or business. I think the itinerancy of these teachers really hurts kids.
One of my students had four teachers for fifth grade. Others had ﬁve teachers for seventh grade English. You can’t learn like that. When eighth graders saw that l was still in my classroom working when they came back for ninth grade, they saw that l was willing to work for them. I just didn’t leave.